Drones in the Sahel: in whose interest?

Last week’s military coup in Mali brought brief attention from the world’s media to the Sahel. But behind the latest headlines, drones are a growing part of the ongoing conflict in the region.

French troops guard a Reaper drone

On 21 December 2019, France carried out a drone strike for the first time, killing seven alleged jihadist fighters in central Mali. In total, 40 terrorists were killed during the weekend-long operations which took place in an area controlled by the group, Katibat Macina. The news of the strike came just two days after Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, said its fleet of MQ-9 Reapers had finished testing with laser-guided missiles at an airbase in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Until this point, French Reapers in the Sahel-Saharan strip had been used primarily for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Now, the French government argues, the idea is for the military to have an additional strike capability in its missions, supporting states in their fight against terrorist groups and thus bringing stability and security to the region. The reality, however, is a little hazier than that. 

As it happens, France is not the only country conducting drone operations in the Sahel. Other European actors have provided intelligence support to the UN mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, since 2014. The Netherlands and Sweden, for example, have deployed small unmanned crafts like the ScanEagle and Puma AE, whereas Germany has sent several leased Heron 1s to Gao. Unsurprisingly, US Predators and Reapers have also participated in counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and counter-crime operations across the region for close to a decade.

These large drone powers, which at times fail to communicate or coordinate on the fight against jihadist organisations, risk saturating small states and adding new layers of insecurity to the Sahel, and other parts of Africa, as more drone-based relationships are entered into. Turkey is the latest player to join the game and their armed UAV capabilities and ambitions have been well-documented.

An important element here is the relationship between the United States and the Nigerien government. Here’s the backstory. In January 2013, the United States signed a military agreement with Niger to allow American forces to legally operate surveillance drones over its territory. A month later, a drone base was established in Niamey and a single Predator aircraft was sent to the capital before making way for faster, more robust Reapers. At the time, US defence officials said the drones were for intelligence-gathering missions only and would not be armed, but stopped short from ruling out equipping them with missiles in the future.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the US Defense Department began pressuring both the Nigerien government and officials at the State Department to approve armed drone flights out of Niamey. Talks concluded in November 2017, after the deaths of four American and four Nigerien troops near the Malian border changed the thinking of those in conversation. The growing presence of local militias and Islamist groups, like Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, also added urgency to the decision.

The memorandum of understanding between the US and Niger called for AFRICOM to fly its armed Reapers from Air Base 101 in Niamey. However, the memo also said that operations will eventually be shifted to a much larger facility further north in Agadez, known as Air Base 201. The Pentagon’s plans to station drones in a patch of desert on the outskirts of Agadez first came to light in 2014, following an exposé by the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock. The base, which is now fully operational, cost $110 million to build and is the second-largest military hub in the region.

The relationship forged by the United States and Niger is a template which is likely to be replicated elsewhere in the future. The large power, in this case, the US, seek to deploy their drones into smaller or less stable states to help further their own national interests. The small power gains economic investment and regional political clout and can argue that the increased security from basing drones within their borders is a welcome benefit.

However, there are several notes of caution that we should keep in mind, not least that states like Niger are being used as a proving ground for drone technology.

First, the deployment of drones over a foreign nation’s soil can undermine the sovereignty of that state. According to Dr James Rogers, an assistant professor in War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, a drone-hosting relationship can be mutually beneficial, but most certainly harm sovereignty as “it takes away the monopoly over deployment of legitimate force from the small states and partially gifts it to a great power.”

This is problematic because it allows foreign actors to essentially play a game of whack-a-mole with the terrorist threat in the region, which is usually self-interested. For example, there has been criticism of the West for failing to address Boko Haram in Niger’s south. “They have kind of been left because they don’t pose so much of a threat back to the European mainland or perhaps American perceptions of terrorism,” Dr Rogers says. Even EUCAP Niger, which has been providing counter-terrorism training and equipment to local security actors since 2012, has focused its efforts around Niamey and Agadez.

The fact that Western militaries have not helped Nigerien authorities in their fight against Boko Haram also suggests that there is little concern for the local population. Indeed, the people of Niger are worried that American drones are not in the country for their security, with the secrecy which shrouds their presence only fuelling conspiracies and mistrust.

Perhaps the local’s perception of drones would be more positive if regional military and security forces were in control of the technology. Say, for instance, Burkina Faso’s authorities were responsible for investigating and prosecuting terrorism-related cases through the use of its own drone fleet; would this help reduce anxiety within communities there? Niger is again a case in point as its National Guard recently took delivery of three Delair DT26 surveillance drones from France.

Crowds in Mali celebrate the overthrow of the government

However, Delina Goxho, an independent analyst on the Sahel and West Africa with the Open Society Foundations, argues that training local forces in the use of drones, unarmed or otherwise, for their own surveillance purposes is worrisome. “When you have a government like Mali that chooses to ignore entire regions, or to mistreat them, or to not provide services to areas where it has no interest, then you add the fact you could be surveilled by your own government… then it is not necessarily a positive,” she says.

It is hard to envision a future in which governments in the Sahel region use armed drones with due care. The Malian, Chadian, and Burkina Faso armed forces have all been associated with significant acts of violence in the past which have, at times, impacted the local populations more than attacks from militants. The most recent example of this regards the Malian army, who have been accused of killing dozens of civilians in Mopti at the beginning of June.

Issues of accountability – or lack of – should civilian deaths occur from drone strikes is also crucial to the discussion. And these worries are not superficial. In Pakistan, hundreds of civilians have been killed by covert attacks and the victims and their families have had no acknowledgement from the US, let alone justice or compensation.

The fight for legal accountability and transparency is likely to be repeated in the Sahel. Not only has President Trump rescinded changes made by Obama regarding drone use – enabling the C.I.A. to run operations from an outpost near Dirkou in north-eastern Niger – but the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Niger gives full criminal jurisdiction to the former over American personnel, even in the case of a death.

Like in many other conflict zones, combatants in the Sahel are hard to distinguish from civilians. In the past, US drone strikes have killed Afghan pine nut workers, a Yemeni wedding procession, and a Pakistani jirga at a bus depot, proving that mistakes can happen. A terrifying thought when you consider that groups operating in West Africa, like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have been known to pay people’s salaries in exchange for flying their black flag.

Finally, there’s the possibility that drone crashes could lead to further public disquiet, particularly in cities where bases have been erected. Agadez witnessed two crashes earlier this year and a further accident just last week, reportedly due to a mechanical failure mid-flight. But it may not necessarily be an American drone which hits the ground next time. Maybe it will be a French craft, or German, or Italian. After all, lots of different drone forces are vying for access to the region and each one could become a legitimate target for retribution should a fatal accident occur.

German Heron UAV in Gao supporting UN operations

Here’s a brief pause for thought, however. Dr Jack Watling, a Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), explains that while he agrees with the argument that UAV strikes have led to increased militancy in places such as Yemen and Pakistan, the environment in the Sahel is very different. “What we are talking about in the Sahel is an area the size of continental Europe, with really dispersed populations,” he says.

“The primary threat [for communities in the region] is physical ground-based violence either from Operation Barkhane or from other forces in the tri-border area. And if they are engaged from the air, it is usually in a context where there is other kinetic activity going on.

“So I don’t think that to the people on the ground there is a pervasive sense of continually being under threat from the air and secondly, I think that the way people contextualise that threat is much more about tribal dynamics and about conflict with French forces than the drone being a specific, identifiable threat vector.”

While the dynamics in the Sahel may be different from the drone campaigns of Pakistan and Yemen, we need to ensure that this technology is being used with as little impact on civilians as possible and that we do not become seduced by the myth of precision which surrounds drone warfare. As the case of Niger has shown, there are major issues concerning sovereignty, public perception, accountability, and proliferation when a small nation welcomes unmanned aircraft into their territory.

All in all, it is far from clear if drones in the Sahel are making life safer for local people. They are often more a source of division than anything else.

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